From refugees to volunteers, Poland

Kateryna hurries through the crowd and up to our stand, where I am stirring breakfast foods on a two-burner stove. She is wearing a heavy jacket and a beanie, beneath which a thick blonde plait descends and rests on her shoulder. ‘Jeeem…’ she says, and then begins speaking Russian (around 30% of Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language). She then switches to English: ‘Today I am working with the women and children and Mama is coming later and then we will go to the school as there are children there that need help and last night I went to…’ Kateryna’s blue eyes are open wide, and her words come out at a rapid rate. I reach out and squeeze her arm. ‘Kat.’ She stops talking and looks at me quizically. ‘Good morning.’ I say. Her face softens and she smiles. ‘Oh…Good morning Jeeem.’

Kateryna, who is in her mid-thirties, left her home in Ukraine with her mother. After crossing the border into Poland they stopped at our stall for a rest and a coffee. Kateryna speaks very good English, and has an endearing but sometimes confusing habit of swapping between English and Russian and back again. We chatted for a while, and then her and Mama followed the path down to the waiting buses. We catch a glimpse into the lives of the displaced Ukrainians as they pass by our stall, and then they are gone, away on their journey to who knows where.

Then a couple of days later, Kateryna came back. She excitedly told me that a lady in the local Polish village had invited her and Mama to stay. She had returned to our stall to volunteer with us, and help her fellow Ukrainians who were seeking safety in Poland. Seconds later Kateryna was cleaning and reorganising our stall, working at a pace just short of frenetic. ‘I am happy to do anything that needs to be done Jeeem. Cleaning, cooking…’

Many of the displaced Ukrainians speak little English, and having a Russian-speaking volunteer with us made a huge difference. Before long Kateryna seemed to know everyone on the entire site, and was busy shuttling refugees here and there to get the care they needed. She would return briefly to our stall for more vigorous cleaning and reorganising, then say something like ‘Jeeem can I please take a few juice boxes to the children’s tent as they have many children there and when I come back I will clean then I am taking a lady to see the…(several Russian sentences)….but tomorrow I will come in a bit later as I am visiting the refugee centre in town and then….’

One day Kateryna arrived with a cheesecake. ‘Mama made this for you all to say thankyou for the work you are doing helping the Ukrainian people.’ It was delicious.

Kateryna is one of many Ukrainians who have been forced from their homes, crossed into Poland and then stayed at the border to help others. Wrapping a Ukrainian flag around their shoulders like a superhero cape, they spend long days walking back and forth between border control and the bus stop. They provide an invaluable service to new arrivals, assisting with luggage, translating, explaining the transport and refugee registration system, and providing information about the facilities and services available at the border.

At our stall we get to know these tireless Ukrainian volunteers well. They usher their fellow refugees to us for refreshments after their long journey, and during their brief breaks sit down with us for a slice of pizza or some hot soup. They teach us useful Ukrainian and Russian words and phrases, and tell us about their lives back at home. Many are in their early twenties; amazing young people with big hearts, a love of their country and a desire to help others.

At first, Kateryna returned to our stall every day, though after a while she spent more time with different agencies and organisations, finding places where her energy and skills could be put to best use. However we still see her often, busily going about her day helping people. Thankfully, she still finds time to pop into the stand, give me a big hug, tell me what she is up to, and call me ‘Jeeem’.

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